Male violence towards women; joining the dots with housing

This week, the community is in mourning yet another woman, killed by a man in a public place.

Her name was Courtney Herron. She was 25-years-old. 

As we’ve learned more about Courtney’s life, it’s become apparent that she was failed in more than one way. Courtney was one of the hundreds of people who sleep rough every night in Victoria. Clearly, she needed safe housing and support to help her recover from mental ill-health and addiction.   

Instead of support and safety, Courtney had her life taken from her through violence perpetrated by a man she knew. Men’s violence towards women is a serious and widespread problem in our community that must be acknowledged and addressed head-on. 

This problem of violence, and the ways in which women’s vulnerability to violence is exacerbated by poverty, must be recognised by the society that claims to care.

But as it stands, our housing and rental markets simply do not recognise the particular needs of women or the heightened risks to their safety. 

Homelessness was not the direct cause of Courtney’s death, but homelessness exacerbated her vulnerability. 

While there are crisis accommodation options and rooming houses, vulnerable women can be accommodated in the same motels or rooming houses as men and many places don’t offer adequate security, or sometimes even working locks on the door.

Every night there is far more demand for these inadequate options than can be met, with many people turned away without the accommodation they need because of a lack of resources.

Not long ago, two male passersby raped a homeless woman who was seeking shelter under a bridge. Other women are raped by men offering shelter for the night. 

We know these dangers often force women into relationships that seem to offer protection, in exchange for sex. Better ‘one bad man’ than vulnerability to many.   

Violence experienced in the home is a leading reason why many women flee and become homeless in the first place. But then when they are homeless they face the risks of more violence.

Yet still, we fail to properly recognise the pervasiveness of men’s violence towards women in our approach to housing.

The number of Victorian women seeking homelessness assistance due to family violence has increased by 70 per cent in the past four years. While there has been action taken by governments to reduce both family violence and to help those who flee, the amount of housing provided for women fleeing violence has not been adequate to address the scale of the problem. 

Neither is there adequate social housing available to women who are homeless because of the poverty, mental illness, or addiction meaning they often struggle to afford private rental.

Social security payments have not kept up with the cost of renting. There are now zero affordable rentals for people on Newstart or Youth Allowance in any major city or regional centre. This makes leaving a violent relationship extremely difficult. 

Mothers on the ParentsNext payment are now subjected to unrealistic compliance regimes, and many have had payments suspended as a result, leaving them without support for themselves or their children.  

All the while, Victoria’s social housing waiting list has increased to over 40,000 households that include 82,500 individual people. This means that even a vulnerable person who is put on the priority list could be waiting for up to 10 months. 

As homelessness has risen, crisis accommodation has become overwhelmed and become even more expensive. Homelessness services in Victoria turn away 90 people per day, including women.

Where do they go? And what risks do they face, out there alone, in a world where 20 Australian women have been killed so far this year?

The role that housing plays in our lives is so fundamental that is often invisible. Tragically, it’s a heartbreaking death like Courtney’s that illustrates that to have four walls around you at night isn’t a luxury – it’s an absolute essential. 

In reckoning with men’s violence against women, our state and federal governments must come to understand that housing is intrinsically involved in the safety of women.

To neglect housing is to ignore the broader, pervasive effects of violence against women. 

Providing more affordable and social housing is a practical and achievable way of making a housing market that works for everyone – ultimately making women safer.